Speaking in sync: Addressing the chronic decline of the Indonesian language in Australia

The number of Australian students participating in Indonesian-language programs has hit a historic low, and many Australian researchers have voiced concern that this trend could have an adverse effect on the broader bilateral ties.

Kate Newsome

Kate Newsome

The Jakarta Post


Grade 8 students from the Macarthur Anglican School in rural New South Wales, Australia learn to use Bahasa Indonesia, in this file photo taken on Aug. 24, 2022, in a simulation held as part of an joint educational program dubbed “Indonesia Goes to School”.(KJRI Sydney/-)

February 3, 2023

JAKARTA – Australia has an Indonesian language problem; or rather, the lack of it. The number of Australian students participating in Indonesian-language programs has hit a historic low, and many Australian researchers have voiced concern that this trend could have an adverse effect on the broader bilateral ties.

“Why have the numbers dropped? I think that there’s a multitude of reasons,” said Australian Ambassador to Indonesia Penny Williams in response to a question on the perceived decline in engagement in Indonesian education programs.

“There’s competition [from the popularity of other languages] and some countries are also much more aggressive in the market in terms of really pushing and funding those sorts of [learning] opportunities,” Williams said during a discussion on Wednesday.

“Universities for a long time would have said, ‘Just give us more money’, [but] I don’t think that’s the answer. You have to build the demand for it.”

Despite being geographically close neighbors, Indonesians and Australians still regularly face cultural barriers, including in language. Language is not only essential for Australians wishing to strengthen their relationship with Indonesia, but Indonesian proficiency can also impact those of Indonesian descent living in Australia, according to a 2021 anecdotal study.

The Lowy Institute, which has surveyed Australians on their views about Indonesia for 15 years, has stated that their answers in regular polling continue to demonstrate a lack of knowledge about their largest neighbor.

Language as vehicle

Rationalizing that Indonesia is one of Australia’s most strategically significant neighbors, critics are calling for immediate remedial action.

“When we talk about language education, it is not merely about teaching structure or grammar of the language. It is a lot more than that,” said Billy Nathan Setiawan, a PhD candidate in Applied Linguistics at the University of South Australia.

“Indonesian language education can be a medium to help understand the worldviews of the country, the people, the values and the beliefs that will help Australia understand Indonesia better,” he told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a cofounder of the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) and research professor at the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), supported the need for this kind of education as a part of Australia’s efforts to strengthen its relationship with Indonesia.

“Australia looks to Indonesia, to ASEAN, to integrate into this regional architecture [of Southeast Asia],” said the Australia-educated scholar on Wednesday.

“Language is a vehicle, a tool.”

The University of South Australia previously reported that the number of Australian high school students taking Indonesian fell by an average of 10,000 each year throughout the 2000s.

In 2019, the Asian Studies Association of Australia identified that the number of students taking Indonesian classes at the tertiary level was more than 60 percent lower than the 1992 enrollment peak.

Starting from the late 1980s, offering Indonesian as a language was prioritized in the Australian curriculum. This was bolstered by initiatives like the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools (NALSAS) Strategy and the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP).

Foreigners learn the Indonesian language through songs with local children at Kampung Bahasa Bloombank (Bloombank Language Village) in Ciracas, East Jakarta, during a summer camp on June 23. (Courtesy of/Kampung Bahasa Bloombank)

Lingering misconceptions

While recent initiatives such as the New Colombo Plan have aimed to rejuvenate young Australians’ interest in Southeast Asia, there has been no comparable language program to address the Indonesian language’s diminishing popularity.

Discussing reasons for this decline, Billy suggested that at the institutional level, one possible factor is the greater emphasis placed on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and English literacy by Australian schools, despite the desirability of bilingualism.

However, at the individual level, he said that growing disinterest can be attributed to “predominantly inaccurate perceptions in the Australian community toward Indonesia”.

Despite the significant increase of Australians visiting each year, with the number of Australian inbound tourists reaching 118,347 between January to June last year, according to official Indonesian data, prejudice and misconceptions abound.

These misconceptions, which span from Indonesia’s political freedom to poverty levels, needed to change, Billy concludes.

In terms of addressing the crisis and getting more Australians to learn Indonesian, Ambassador Williams expressed that “there are different ways through it”.

“There are different modalities. It’s not the seventies and eighties; we have to think about it differently,” she said.

“Working with schools in the first instance is a good start, but we also need to build the cadre of Indonesian teachers.”

Asked who has the capacity and responsibility to act, BRIN’s Dewi concluded that Indonesia “can only respond if Australia is more open to programs to teach Indonesian”.

“We [Indonesia] can then cooperate to bring in Indonesian teachers from Indonesia, but it has to come from Australia’s side first,” she told the Post.

Bottom-up approach

One of the pillars of the Australia-Indonesia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which was jointly declared in 2018, focuses on strengthening people-to-people links, including commitments to academic collaboration and expanding educational and exchange opportunities.

But as Williams asserted, the desire to engage in these opportunities needs to be built from the ground up.

Although demand may need to develop from within Australia, Tangerang, Banten native Billy said that Indonesians living in Australia can also proactively assist in reviving young Australians’ interest in the language.

“I’d like to encourage my fellow Indonesians to be the ‘unofficial’ ambassadors of Indonesian language and culture,” he said, calling on the approximately 90,000 Indonesian-born people who reside in Australia, one-fifth of whom are students.

“We have the lived experience of the language and culture that we can share with the Australians to help revive the Indonesian language education in Australia,” Billy said.

“Addressing this issue properly will bring benefits to both sides.”

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